Archive for February, 2023

I wanted to read Wayétu Moore’s novel ‘She Would be King‘, but when I discovered that she has written a memoir, I wanted to read that first. I read this for ‘Black History Month‘ and for ‘Read Indies’.

‘Read Indies’ is an annual event hosted by Kaggsy (from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) and Lizzy (from Lizzy’s Literary Life), which promotes independent publishers and runs through the whole of February. ‘The Dragons, The Giant, The Women’ is published by ONE, which is an imprint of Pushkin Press.

The Dragons, The Giant, The Women‘ starts with the story happening in Liberia. It is narrated by the five-year old Wayétu Moore. We discover that her mom is in America and she and her sisters are living with her dad. Civil war breaks out in Liberia, and Wayétu Moore and her family have to flee their home. What happens to them is told in the rest of the book.

The book is divided into multiple parts. The first part, which is the longest part of the book, is narrated in the voice of the five-year old Wayétu Moore. That voice is beautiful, charming and authentic. I loved it. That was my favourite part of the book. Then the story shifts to the present say, and it is narrated by thirty-something Wayétu Moore. Then at some point, the story moves back to the past and continues from where it left off at the end of the first part and we hear the story through the voice of Wayétu Moore’s mom. And then the story is continued by today’s Wayétu Moore while she describes the events of the past, and the pages fly by and the tension increases, as the last part reads like a thriller.

I loved the first part of the book. It was my favourite. I also loved the last two parts which carried on the story which was told in the first part. The part in between was different – the voice was different, the themes were different. It talked about Wayétu Moore’s life in America as an African immigrant and the discrimination she suffers. What that part talked about is important, but it didn’t hang well with the rest of the book. It felt like Wayétu Moore decided to write another book in the middle of the first book. Maybe this middle part deserved a book of its own.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Dragons, The Giant, The Women‘. ‘Enjoyed’ is probably not the right word, as the story describes war and suffering. Liberia is a complex country with a complex history, and I learnt some of it through Moore’s book. It is so unbelievable that all this happened. When I read these lines on the last page of the book –

“My Ol’ Ma says the best stories do not always end happily, but happiness will find its way in there somehow. She says that some will bend many times like the fisher’s wire. Some make the children laugh. Some make even the Ol’ Pas cry. Some the griots will take a long time to tell, but like plums left in the sun for too long, they too are sweet to taste.

Suffering is a part of everyone’s story. As long as my Ol’ Ma is here, and I am here, as long as I become an Ol’ Ma myself and my children’s children become Ol’ Mas and Ol’ Pas, there will be rainy seasons and dry seasons too long to bear, where troubles pile up like coal to burn you to dust. But just like suffering makes its bed in these seasons, so does happiness, however brief, however fleeting.

There are many stories of war to tell. You will hear them all. But remember among those who were lost, some made it through. Among the dragons there will always be heroes. Even there. Even then. And of those tales ending in defeat, tales of death and orphans wandering among the ruined, some ended the other way too.”

– when I read this, I cried.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“The restlessness made a home on my shoulders, tormenting me as the day went on. This was the other side of love. Love gone is painful, and I existed in that grief…But love almost gone — the lurking threat of loss — that was a daily torture, death realized every morning.”

“An Ol’ Ma, a grand-aunt maybe, told us that all of our dead and missing were resting peacefully in wandering clouds, and when it rains and you listen closely you can hear the things they forgot to tell you before leaving.”

“We had been together for two years, all of which were long distance. Long-distance relationships begin beautifully, end suddenly, sometimes by accident, and thereafter smoke rises not because all is burned to ashes but because there is always something left in the pipe…The Ol’ Mas did not tell us that you could not throw away love once it was finished. That it would remain on us like blackened scars, under neath blouses and in those places only we could see. That we would reach a point where it, once solid, would melt in our hands and we would never fully wash off its residue; and that some love, the truest love, also the most dangerous, could disfigure our core.”

“I thought of Mam in that moment. She had taught me many things, and at times, especially during those teenage years of promising her I would move far away to New York as soon as I got my diploma, she was more than I deserved. She taught me how to cook, how to write, my posture, how to care for a home, how to love God, how to read. She taught me politeness, creativity, how to write a letter, especially to those who had offended me. How to pray, how to fold clothes, how to love my sisters, how to love my brothers, how to love myself. She taught me about women—how to be one, how to know them, how to befriend them, how to give advice and love them, and how some would betray me because they saw kindness as weakness, and at the first sign of such brutality I should walk away, for such women did not even love themselves. That not all who chose to be around me liked me. That some knew too well how to pretend, and they would raise daughters with these doctrines, so I should remember her words and the words of my Ol’ Mas to raise mine. And some would raise sons they did not want to let go of, and would handle them like marionettes, and I should be careful never to sit in the audience of such a show for too long.

But there were things I went into the world not knowing. We did not talk about what to do when a boy was unkind, in words or actions, breaking my heart. I was lousy in the ways of healing. Mam had one true love and she married him. She had one true love in a country of women like her, whose sun took turns resting on their deep, dark skin. My true loves in our new country, by either inheritance or indoctrination, were taught that black women were the least among them. Loving me was an act of resistance, though many did not know it. And Mam could not understand this feeling, the heaviness of it, to be loved as resistance, as an exception to a rule. To fight to be seen in love, to stay in love throughout the resistance. This was my new country.”

Have you read ‘The Dragons, The Giant, The Women‘? What do you think about it?


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I discovered ‘Black Foam‘ by Haji Jabir recently. It looked quite fascinating and so I decided to read it. I read this for ‘Black History Month‘.

The main character in ‘Black Foam‘ is a man who seems to be homeless, rootless. As we read the story, we discover that he is a young Eritrean soldier on the eve of Eritrea’s independence. Circumstances change for him after a while and he has to flee his country and he is on the run. He ends up in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. He changes his identity – his name and his religion – and from Dawoud, he becomes David. When things don’t go well for him at the refugee camp, he changes his name again to Dawit, somehow gets into a Jewish community, and migrates to Israel. What happens to this man, who belongs nowhere, or rather who belongs everywhere, is told in the rest of the story.

This is my first book by an Eritrean author and I found it very fascinating. The author is Eritrean, the book is written in Arabic, and the story happens in three places, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Israel – all these together made it a very unusual and fascinating book. At some point we read this passage in the book –

“He wasn’t asking for much: he just wanted to survive, live a normal life, wake up, sleep, love and have children, and then die in his bed. He wasn’t asking for more.”

It is such a simple life to wish for. The main character just wants this. But this is hard. For him, this is almost impossible. He has to change his identity, his name, his religion, his language, his country, and still this simple life is out of his reach. There is a famous place in Jerusalem where there is a ladder against a building. The ladder is short and is not able to reach the window. This ladder and window have been there like this for 300 years. It is described in the book. The main character’s life is like that. Inspite of reinventing himself multiple times, he ends up being like the ladder, which never reaches the window, which is the simple life he yearns for. It is heartbreaking.

This book asks big profound questions on who we are as individuals and humans – whether we really have an identity or whether it is all just a fleeting thing which can be changed at will, whether we belong anywhere, or we belong nowhere, or maybe we belong everywhere. It made me think a lot.

I enjoyed reading ‘Black Foam‘. It is an important book for our times. It is the first book I’ve read which is written by a black writer in Arabic. Black writer, writing in Arabic, translated into English – this is as diverse as it can get.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“An idea he had often entertained popped back into his mind—that Eritreans didn’t know anger, that they only grieved and were broken and withdrew, while never losing their temper. For the oppressed, anger was a luxury, and between them and anger there stood a fence of humiliation and oppression. Anger was an act of will, and the oppressed had no will and no ability to make decisions. He wanted to explain all of that to her…”

“Each time, he got deeper into the construction of his story, making many unnecessary embellishments. He usually didn’t like this method since this way he wasn’t the owner and master of the story. Instead, it became the property of his listeners. Storytelling was a dangerous game, and the tale could slip from your hands at just the moment you thought it was fully yours. Still, he felt this was a good test of his ability to narrate, or rather to fabricate. After all, narration was fabrication. Anything else was just a poor imitation, merely passing on a story made up by someone else.”

“Then suddenly she lifted her head and asked : “By the way, which of your names would you like me to call you?” The question threw him into confusion. Should he say Dawoud, with all the defeats and losses that old name carried? Or should he choose David, a newer name, yet with as many bitter experiences? Or should he stick with the infant Dawit, without knowing for sure whether it was any different from its predecessors? He couldn’t get rid of these names and everything they carried. Each one was a weight that dragged behind him, like a cupboard full of memories, and he couldn’t seem to pass by any bit of anguish without storing it inside them. He didn’t know if he gave each name its wretched shape and features or whether it was the other way around. What he did know was that his many names were a lot like him, a good fit for him and his amputated life. These names, which he had wanted to save him, had instead become a burden. It occurred to him that, even if he continued to switch between all the names, it wouldn’t change his fate. Thus, he felt a little more charitable toward the names since the jinx was part of his destiny. Names were just rags, after all; they couldn’t hide his fate. He surfaced from his confusion and told her to call him whatever she wanted.”

Have you read ‘Black Foam‘? What do you think about it?

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I thought I’ll continue reading books set in Ethiopia and so picked this one, ‘Addis Ababa Noir‘ edited by Maaza Mengiste. I read this for ‘Black History Month‘ and for ‘Read Indies‘.

Read Indies‘ is an annual event hosted by Kaggsy (from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) and Lizzy (from Lizzy’s Literary Life), which promotes independent publishers and runs through the whole of February. ‘Addis Ababa Noir’ is published by Akashic Books, an independent publisher based out of Brooklyn.

Addis Ababa Noir‘ is a collection of 14 short stories. They are all set in Addis Ababa, of course  Many of them are poignant stories, sometimes with heartbreaking endings. Many of them are set during the period of the Derg, between 1974-91 when the military dictatorship was in power in Ethiopia and during which time innocent people suffered. As you might have guessed by now, this is not a book of classic noir. So you won’t find stories like a woman plotting with the insurance agent to kill her husband and pocket the insurance money, or a woman plotting with a guest to kill her husband who is the motel owner and get his money. This is not that book. The noir aspect here is that things are sad and dark and bleak and there are no happy endings. There are some stories which don’t have heartbreaking endings and sometimes the endings are almost happy, but the endings in general are sad ones.

My favourite story from the book was ‘Father Bread‘ by Mikael Awake. In this story a young boy ends up in an orphanage. His family has been attacked and killed by hyenas. The man who owns the orphanage tries to put the young boy up for adoption to an American couple. But this man’s intentions are not necessarily noble. And the young boy, he is no ordinary young boy. The ending of the story was stunning and surprising and I didn’t see that coming. It was wonderful how the author took an idea from Ethiopian mythology and adapted it to a modern setting.

My second favourite story from the book was ‘Agony of a Congested Heart‘ by Teferi Nigussie Tafa. It is about the struggle of the Oromo people, who have been oppressed by successive Ethiopian governments. This story offers an insightful, tragic lesson in history. When the narrator says that while his African brothers and sisters suffered under white colonialism, his own people the Oromo suffered under black colonialism, it breaks our heart. Einstein once said – “Two things are infinite : the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” Humans just keep proving it everyday with their infinite levels of oppression. The oppressed continue to oppress others who are less fortunate than them, and this continues to infinite levels, and this has been there since the dawn of time with no end in sight. We’d assume that humans would have learnt the lessons of history by now and would try to be more kind and do better, but human stupidity is infinite as Einstein said, and it looks like they’ll never learn. When the narrator says in the end – “When I discovered this, I realized that my forty years of struggle had ended in nothing. Maybe struggle is not good. Maybe struggle is a curse! We all carry the agony of a congested heart. My agony, my people’s agony” – it breaks our heart.

I also loved the first story in the book, ‘Kind Stranger‘ by Meron Hadero, in which a man who is passing through a churchyard, is pulled aside by a stranger who then starts telling this man his story. ‘A Night in Bela Sefer‘ by Sulaiman Addonia is about a young man who responds to a strange ad in the paper and is hired for a job. It is a beautiful story about desire and identity and orientation. ‘A Double-Edged Inheritance‘ by Hannah Giorgis is about family and love with some revenge thrown in. ‘Dust, Ash, Flight‘ by Maaza Mengiste is a heartbreaking story about people who lose their family members to government-sponsored violence. ‘The Blue Shadow‘ by Mahtem Shiferraw is a beautiful, heartbreaking story about a mother’s love for her son. The mother is an unusual person, and you’ll know why when you read the story. ‘Of the Poet and the Cafe‘ by Girma T. Fantaye is about a man who goes in the morning to open his cafe and discovers that it has disappeared. He is even more surprised when no one seems to remember him or his cafe. It is a fascinating, surreal story and is almost Borgesian. ‘Kebele ID‘ by Linda Yohannes is a simple story but also a beautiful one. ‘None of Your Business‘ by Solomon Hailemariam is a story which asks questions on what is really a democracy and what happens when we fight for it and demand it.

I loved ‘Addis Ababa Noir‘. It was not at all what I expected. The stories explored Ethiopian culture and history and mythology and contemporary life and it was hard to classify them as classical noir. This noir series by Akashic Books is big and there is a huge backlist. Hoping to dip into that in the future.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

From ‘Kind Stranger‘ by Meron Hadero

“Those subtle stings to pride—they’re worse than the big ego blows because they’re not like some obvious pebble you can remove from your shoe. They are like shards that you know are there but can’t find and can’t get rid of.”

From ‘Ostrich‘ by Rebecca Fisseha

“My father waited. I knew that wait. It meant that their conversation was one response away from becoming a fight. All it needed was for her to say words sharper than his. Unlike other adults, my parents never hid their fights from anyone. They believed that disagreeing was normal and good, and always kissed afterward, no matter who won. But my mother didn’t respond that day. She let the silence be. It lingered even after my father rolled down his window to the sound of the city.”

From ‘The Blue Shadow‘ by Mahtem Shiferraw

“Although Weyzero Fantish was a woman afflicted by many sorrows, she also loved life deeply. Mourning was what she did best, and she wanted to do it because everyone deserved to be mourned for, to be longed for, and the seed of sorrow she planted in her mourners’ hearts always loomed larger and more intricate, and would come back to her in the shape of kindness and kinship.”

From ‘Insomnia‘ by Lelissa Girma

“A mirror is a compassionate object reflecting false images the reflection wishes to believe,” his friend said. “If that man had watched himself from our vantage point, if he saw himself dining with his present condition, he would have thrown himself off a bridge and died. You can’t find out the truth about yourself until you come across your own self on the street, and then you observe yourself at a distance to decide what condition you are in.”

From ‘Of Buns and Howls‘ by Adam Reta

“To him, dead people were cool, because dead people couldn’t kill you.”

Have you read ‘Addis Ababa Noir‘? What do you think about it? Have you read other books in Akashic’s noir series?

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I got Maaza Mengiste’s first novel ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze’ many years back, when it first came out. I was waiting for the right time to read it. It looks like now is the right time. I read this for Black History Month.

The story told in ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze‘ is set sometime in 1974. Haile Selassie is still the Emperor of Ethiopia. But there is unrest brewing in the country. There is a famine in parts of the country. Students and other people protest against the government for not helping those suffering from the famine. Parts of the army protest against the government for higher pay. We see all this through the eyes of one family and their friends. The head of the family is a doctor. His wife is unwell right now. His eldest son is a professor. His youngest son is a student who is one of the protestors against the government. What happens when this family is swept away by historical events over which they have no control forms the rest of the story.

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze‘ is a fascinating introduction to Ethiopian history of the 1970s, when great, terrible events overtook the country. Though it is a work of fiction, the story feels very real, and the author has done her research well. For me the book felt very personal. I spent my childhood in Ethiopia, and when I read names like Almaz, Kifle, Amman, Dawit and places like Arat Kilo, Sidist Kilo, Mercato, I cried, because those were all names I knew, and those were all places I’ve been to. We had a family friend called Almaz who was like a big sister to me. Yayehyerad Kifle was one of my best friends (we used to call him Mamush. Mamush was a kind of pet name for many Ethiopian boys.) Amman was another friend of mine. He told me that he was named after the great Ethiopian general. There was an old Italian man who used to live in Amman’s house, probably his grandmother’s boyfriend, who stayed back after the Italians left after the Second World War. He had an old Second World War Italian motorcycle, and every year he used to service it and get it ready and then ride it on the streets, and we kids used to run after him. Dawit (Ethiopian version of David) was the name of the son of one of my mom’s friends. The school my dad used to work in, Menelik School, was located at Arat Kilo. Mercato was a bustling market, and I’ve been there many times. So reading the book took me back across time and made me relive my own experiences.

During the time period that the story is set, the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed by the military and then killed. (The Ethiopian military probably followed the French and Russian playbook – kill the king and all his relatives. The only guys who did it differently and which had interesting results, were the Chinese. They put the emperor through a ‘re-education’ programme, and then offered him a government job. He became a government employee, lived life like a regular person, and retired as a government employee. It was almost like a Kafka story.) The military dictatorship called the Derg took over, imposed a communist totalitarian rule across the country, banned private property, and the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam eliminated all his critics and opponents. This book describes how rebels were shot dead and their bodies were thrown on the streets as a warning to other rebels and people who wanted to protest against the government. I can’t remember any of this from my childhood though. My childhood was filled with regular childhood stuff – going to school, coming back home, making my parents’ lives challenging, playing football with my friends on the streets, or doing crazy stuff like climbing water tanks like a monkey. I don’t remember gun battles on the streets and people being shot dead and bodies being thrown on the main streets. On one or two occasions, I remember soldiers carrying stenguns knocked at our door and searched our apartment. My dad said later that they do this everytime there is a coup. I remember the soldiers being polite and nice. It all felt like an adventure to me.

So the book was a big surprise to me, of course. I didn’t know that the horrors that were mentioned in the book had happened. I can’t believe that I had lived in the middle of it. My dad went to work in Ethiopia when the Emperor was still around, and he continued to work there after the coup when the military took over. A year after my dad came back, the Derg dictatorship was overthrown and Mengistu Haile Mariam fled the country. I need to talk to my dad and find out how things were at that time, especially at the time of the coup and the years after that, when things were really hard and the government of that time did unspeakable things. When you are living in another country, you are mostly living in a bubble, and you never know what is happening to a local citizen and what kind of pressure and fear they are living through. I think that is what happened to my family and others like mine. But my dad taught Ethiopian and African history and so he probably knew better. Need to talk to him soon.

I enjoyed reading ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze‘ though it was mostly heartbreaking to read. I’m looking forward to reading Maaza Mengiste’s next book ‘The Shadow King‘ soon.

Have you read ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘Confessions‘ by Kanae Minato by accident. The plot was very appealing and so I picked it up.

The main character in the story is a teacher in middle school. One day her young daughter is found dead in the swimming pool behind the school. The verdict of the police is that she had drowned. But the teacher discovers that two of the students killed her daughter. She plans her revenge. What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

When I started reading the book, I thought it would be a revenge thriller. I love a good old-fashioned revenge thriller, in which the good character plans a long, deep revenge on the bad guys and pulls it off. Who doesn’t love this kind of revenge thriller? But after I read the first part of the book, which stretches to around 50 pages, I realized that the story was mostly done and dusted. I wondered what the author was going to do in the next 200 pages. There was only so much you can do, when things are mostly done and dusted. It looked like the author had written herself into a corner. But Kanae Minato is smart, of course. If a simple reader like me can see this, then as a writer, she can see this much in advance. When I was wondering what was going to happen next, Kanae Minato does the Rashomon thing, and tells the story from different points of view. She takes the story forward from where the teacher left off, and we are able to see what transpires from the perspective of different characters. We are also able to delve into their past. This makes the book more than a revenge thriller, more than a regular crime novel. Before long, we start questioning the nature of good and evil, and we ask ourselves whether we can really tell whether someone is good or bad, or whether there is even such a thing. This makes the book complex and fascinating! The ending is surprising and I didn’t see that coming!

‘Confessions’ is a fascinating crime novel and revenge thriller, but it is also much more than that. It was a gripping read from the beginning to the end. Japanese writers are famous for their dark thrillers, and this is one of the good ones.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“I suppose everybody wants to be recognized for what they’ve done; everybody wants to be praised. But doing something good or remarkable isn’t easy. It’s much easier to condemn people who do the wrong thing than it is to do the right thing yourself. But even then, it takes a certain amount of courage to be the first one to come out and blame someone else. What if no one else joins you? No one else stands up to condemn the wrongdoer? On the other hand, it’s easy to join in condemning someone once someone else has gotten the ball rolling. You don’t even have to put yourself out there; all you have to do is say, “Me, too!” It doesn’t end there: You also get the benefit of feeling that you’re doing good by picking on someone evil—it can even be a kind of stress release. Once you’ve done it, though, you may find that you want that feeling again—that you need someone else to accuse just to get the rush back. You may have started with real bad guys, but the second time around you may have to look further down the food chain, be more and more creative in your charges and accusations. And at that point you’re pretty much conducting a witch hunt—just like in the Middle Ages. I think we regular people may have forgotten a basic truth—we don’t really have the right to judge anyone else.”

“Weak people find even weaker people to be their victims. And the victimized often feel that they have only two choices : put up with the pain or end their suffering in death. But they’re wrong. The world you live in is much bigger than that. If the place in which you find yourself is too painful, I say you should be free to seek another, less painful place of refuge. There is no shame in seeking a safe place. I want you to believe that somewhere in this wide world there is a place for you, a safe haven.”

“My father remarried the following year. I had turned eleven. His new wife, someone he had known in middle school, was pretty enough but she was also impossibly dumb. Here she was marrying the owner of an electronics store, and she couldn’t even tell the difference between AA and AAA batteries. Still, I found I didn’t really hate her. Mostly because she didn’t pretend: She was fully aware how stupid she was. When she didn’t know something, she just said so. If a customer asked her a difficult question, she would make a careful note of it and then ask my father before calling back with the answer. There was something admirable in this kind of stupidity. I took to calling her Miyuki-san, and the respect was genuine. I never once talked back to her or treated her like an evil stepmother, the way kids on those cheesy TV shows do. On the contrary, I was the model stepchild, finding a designer bag for her cheap on the Internet or going along with her to carry the grocery bags when she went shopping for dinner. I didn’t even mind when she showed up for Parents’ Day at school. I hadn’t mentioned it to her, but she must have heard from one of the other shopkeepers. Anyway, there she was, all dolled up and right in the middle of the front row. When I was at the blackboard solving some arithmetic problem that was too hard for the other kids, she took my picture with her phone, and then she showed it to my father when we got home—but I didn’t mind. To be honest, it made me kind of happy. Sometimes the three of us would go out bowling or to karaoke, and I began to realize that I was slowly becoming as stupid as they were—and that there was actually something unusually pleasant about being stupid. I had even begun to think that I could be happy being nothing more than a member of this family of dummies.”

Have you read ‘Confessions‘? What do you think? Have you read other Kanae Minato books?

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